Urging law enforcement officials to provide protection and safeguard the rights of all individuals in Pakistan, more than 50 Muslim clerics came together to issue a fatwa, stating transgender men and women are allowed to marry under sharia law. While the religious decree (which is not legally binding) was cautiously welcomed by different sections of society, activists believe several aspects of the law need to be changed so as to better protect the country’s marginalized transgender community—also known as khawaja sara or hijra.
“It is permissible for a transgender person with male indications on his body to marry a transgender person with female indications on her body,” read the decree. “Also, normal men and women can marry such transgender people having clear indications on their body.”
However, it did not mention what these ‘indications’ are while clearly declaring marriage with any individual having both male and female ‘indications’ blasphemous.
A group called Tanzeem Ittehad-i-Ummat Pakistan—located in the eastern city of Lahore—issued the fatwa after its leaders said any gesture teasing, insulting or humiliating transgender individuals should be considered a crime.
“Making noises at transgender people, making fun of them, teasing them, or thinking of them as inferior is against sharia law; because such an act amounts to objecting to one of Allah's creations, which is not correct,” the fatwa added.
Even though Tanzeem Ittehad-i-Ummat Pakistan does not rank among the country’s most influential religious groups, its decree was aired on national television; with certain senior clerics clarifying that Islam already acknowledges the rights of transgender individuals.
Stressing how this move would help prevent discrimination, Zia-ul-Haq Naqshbandi (chairman of Tanzeem Ittehad-i-Ummat Pakistan) said, “We need to accept them as God’s creation too. Whoever treats them badly—society, the government, their own parents—are sinners.”
The details of their fatwa have caused critics to demand increased protection for Pakistan’s transgender community. Since the decree states individuals with visible signs of being male or female may marry individuals of the opposite gender—but those with visible signs of both genders may not—Karachi-based transgender rights activist Bindiya Rana dismissed the news as nothing but confusing.
“I don’t quite understand it. They’ve said trans men can marry women, and trans women can marry men. The transgender identity is nowhere,” said Rana.
Yet, another transgender rights activist Almas Bobby appeared more welcoming of the development.
“We are glad that somebody's talked about us. By Sharia we already had the right [to marry], but unless measures are taken to remove the misconceptions about us in society, the condition of our community will not be changed,” said Bobby.
According to the decree, transgender individuals are not only entitled to a religious marriage but also a burial by Muslim ceremonies. They even have full rights under Islamic inheritance law.
Still, the transgender community is known to face severe harassment and prejudice in Pakistan. Shunned by mainstream society, they are often compelled to work as beggars, bar dancers or prostitutes for their livelihood in the country that has a total population of 190 million.
In the last two years, as many as 45 transgender individuals have been killed in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, according to transgender rights group Trans Action. Just a couple of months ago, 23-year-old Alisha died after being shot and denied treatment at the largest government hospital in Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. Alisha’s death sparked a heated debate over the rights of transgender individuals in Pakistan, with an inquiry concluding senior doctors at the hospital were responsible for criminal negligence and suggesting criminal charges be filed against them.
Qamar Naseem, co-founder of Trans Action, welcomed the decree and said that testing it legally would be the next step.
“They’ve opened a window, and other windows will open because of this, because the religious community has started a conversation. Now we need to take this forward and get a legal interpretation from the courts,” he said.
Even though transgender individuals continue to live as a marginalized minority in the country, sometimes they have been venerated for having mystical powers that are supposedly common among those falling outside traditional gender barriers.
In 2012, the Supreme Court in Pakistan declared equal rights for all transgender citizens; including the right to inherit property, preceded a year earlier by the right to vote. However, homosexuals in Pakistan continue to be denied the right to marry, with gays often being persecuted under the country’s existing anti-sodomy laws.
Photo Credits: The Positive Protons